As corporations look at ways to give back through charity work and support of community nonprofits, it can be difficult both to allocate resources and ensure giving has a positive impact. Connie E.W. Smith, senior vice president and Florida community affairs manager for Wells Fargo and Company, oversees the use of more than $10 million a year in such efforts within this state, including such local endeavors as the Florida House Foundation. Smith, the keynote speaker at the November event SB2: The Art of Corporate Philanthropy, spoke with us about how corporations can do a good job of doing good.

PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

How much of your job in corporate philanthropy is about ensuring a return on investments? Smith: At Wells Fargo, we make a lot of contributions because of the relationships we have and the relationships our team members have with nonprofits, so a lot of those contributions we are making because we had a relationship with the nonprofit and are confident in the work they are doing. We’re not requiring those organizations to provide impact reports. On the other hand, this new program I am part of, the Diverse Community Capital program, is requiring awardees to provide annual reports on their deliverables to increase lending to diverse businesses. A lot of it depends on the level of funding, frankly. If we are making a $5,000 grant to an organization we have been supporting for decades, we are comfortable with the work they are doing. On the other hand, if we’re making a $500,000 grant to an organization in a very specific, targeted way, we require reporting of the impact of their work and the impact of the dollars we invested.

You said at the SB2 event that Wells Fargo focuses on a couple of chief areas to direct its charitable giving. Does that ensure a bigger impact? Smith:  Absolutely. Our guidelines are as much about what we are not able to fund as much as about what we want to fund. Those two priority program areas we have for our funding—Education and Community Development—really make sense both from a business perspective but also because of the results that those two programs have in our communities. We can’t be all things to all organizations. We say those are our priority program areas and we back them up. And we can tell the story, for example, about our support of education foundations across the state, about what we are doing in the affordable housing space, about how we are supporting small business growth across the State of Florida. 

Does the work being done cross over into the commercial work done by Wells Fargo? Smith:I referenced our Vision and Values, that booklet that defines how we work. There was a quote in the last edition: “You’ll never see a thriving bank in a struggling community.” We do want to serve individuals and communities and groups and organizations. Sometimes that service is philanthropic in an effort to get them to be our customers, and we see that. In that way, they are connected.

Why is it important to maintain a separation within a corporation? Smith:  It’s essential. The Wells Fargo Foundation is the primary source of our charitable contributions, and we risk losing that foundation status when we tie our philanthropic giving with our business practices. That goes back to why it’s so important to have guidelines and limitations for your giving. That’s what is going to be your governing framework for how you make contributions. I will say, oftentimes when our bankers are involved with responding to a proposal for banking services, they do share our Corporate Social Responsibility report as part of their presentation because we do get asked what we are doing in the community. This is especially true when it comes to requests for proposals associated with public entities. 

Wells Fargo three years ago made a major entry into Florida after taking over Wachovia Bank. Have you seen major giving since then? Smith: Yes. I have been doing this work with our charitable contributions going back to when we were First Union, then when we became Wachovia. In the past few years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of this work and growing recognition that not only is the work important but telling the story of the work is important. Since we have transitioned from Wachovia to Wells Fargo, our budget for charitable contributions in Florida did increase. And not only has our budget set aside for local decision-making increased by $1.5 million in that transition, but also our ability to access other company resources for specific programs has increased. So the budget that my team and I manage for the state of Florida is $9.3 million. Last year, we supplemented that with another $2.5 million in resources from various enterprise-wide programs, whether that was in the Wells Fargo Housing Foundation, the Wells Fargo Environmental Solutions for Communities programs or a variety of different ways we pull down more money from the enterprise.